Michael J. Pagan
I always thought I'd like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name.
“...new torments and new tormented souls I see around me wherever I move, and howsoever I turn, and wherever I gaze,” was the fragment I'd written on a small bit of something paper; that first snippet of the morning, tucked away in one of my coverall's breast pockets, to carry around with me like some sort of evil alchemy.
Reveille! Reveille! Reveille! All hands heave out and trice up. Now, Reveille!
The ship's 1MC (Main Circuit) loudspeaker was the closest most of us came to overhearing what was always assumed to be the plain, gospel truth, though--and almost prickly apropos--the words were naval-issued, and thus, scripted. If anyone were to find themselves in either the ship's Bridge, Pilot House, or down in Damage Control Central (while underway; the ship's Quarterdeck when in-port), they'd find the voice coming from whoever the appointed Officer of the Deck was: reading verbatim et literatim from the laminated pages of a--sometimes white--three-ring binder. I hazily remember the label being awkwardly put together: a folded piece of notebook paper, black permanent marker, and an insincere amount of Scotch tape: U.S.S. ______: 1MC Announcements.
Some acronymic so-and-so of note--more than likely an E-6 or above, which is typical--could've, just as well, have slipped the folded sheet of notebook paper underneath the protective, plastic covering that belongs to most three-ring binders. Then again, the U.S. Navy has a monkey for a superabundance of redundancy, and empty-headedness, and waste.
"It is in our best interests," their make-believe egg in a beer: redundancy = an unimaginable wastefulness of repetition = attention to detail--my own personal favorite. As any unfortunate acronymic so-and-so pulled in by the palsied branches of U.S. military knows: attention to detail is the lifeblood of all--even me--military men and women; bludgeoned into the very marrow of our bones--already having holes--since that introductory night of boot camp: standing in formation, with every bit of what we cared to own prior to arriving at Naval Station Great Lakes (firmly seated in North Chicago, Illinois) on our person, while anticipating the next available barber to gayfully rub out any and all self-rule that may have been thought to be hiding in our hair.
An Officer and a Gentleman or Full Metal Jacket on our minds, simply because we didn't know any better. I, on the other hand, had Forrest Gump:
*Disclaimer: to arrive at boot camp with an already, pre-ritualistically, shaved dome is a dead giveaway to the counterfeit power elite of someone hemorrhaging the potentiality of insubordination; agitator of the abovementioned "it's in our best interests" ideology, and therefore, the greater good of the U.S. Navy. In truth, there's something Samson-like about the entire farce, and the last thing needed is a hedgerow of Tony Manero's crying out: "Would ya just watch the hair!"
Ask anyone: it's near impossible for any of us to remember their faces.
The smoking lamp is lit.
Trying to recall what had happened during one particular tick of my enlistment, I researched an incident involving the death of a Deck Seaman while onboard the ship and found absolutely nothing of it; as if that bit of time was thumbed out.
The smoking lamp is out.
What I wasn'table to uncover about the incident (search engine results): U.S.S. ______ Suicide: yielded about 5,650 results, zero in reference to the actual incident; Sailor Suicide Onboard _____ yielded about 104,000 results, zero in reference to the actual incident; USS _____ (CG-__) Suicide yielded about 76,500 results, zero in reference to the actual incident.
What I was able tofind (one article in particular): U.S.S. ______ (CG-__) gear available on EBay (actual item postings available at the time):
Yet another amusing mouthful about a naval vessel's 1MC system: "During an incident involving a casualty, the 1MC is a communication tool used by DCA [Damage Control Assistant] to keep ship members alerted and informed of the casualty's location area, status, and incident response efforts by the DC [Damage Control] organization [. . .] some details are not passed on certain circuits."1
Sweepers! Sweepers! Man your brooms. Give the ship a clean sweep down both fore and aft. Sweep down all lower decks, ladder wells and passageways. Dump all garbage in receptacles provided for on the pier. Now, Sweepers!
I clicked on one of the links available at the top of the U.S.S. ______'s official homepage titled: Life At Sea,2Fifteen pictures in total--their own version of the graduated cylinder--covering every assumed phase, every assumed feeling, and every assumed cubic kilometer imaginable in reference to the carryings-on of our egg-headed swabbies: (3) picturesque aerial shots from outside, and melodramatically away from the ship: one of the ship scampering from right to left, another of the ship galloping from left to right, and another of the ship's frontispiece barreling toward the camera. If there were ever grimace or frown, I can promise you, the camera would've captured it; (1) shot of the ship's 5-inch cannon--located on the ship's forecastle (located at the very front of the ship) firing away into the defenseless evening; (1) a close-up of a male, helmeted and goggled sailor pointing (safe to assume he's not shooting) a rifle, looking more soldier than sailor, and thus, more butch; (1) a handful of sailors (male) fishing off the side of the ship, into the ocean. I immediately noticed the photographer's choice of employing a special lens to give the picture a convex-type of aesthetic--the bulging eye. Instead of it appearing as if the sailors are fishing into the ocean, they looked to be fishing into a big, blue marble. Thematically, it makes perfect sense given the ambitious goal of the Life at Sea link: to encapsulate the entire sea-going experience in merely 15 photographs--it's like asking someone to measure the ocean; (1) a sailor (male) in short pants, performing a back-flip off the side of the ship, while four other sailors (male) watch. 5 males total in the frame, only three down to their short pants; (3) various helos in mid-flight, slightly above the skin of the ship's deck, like bloated mosquitoes; (1) an internal view of the ship's Bridge, thankfully all in frame are facing ahead (none operating the 1MC, however); (1) a massive swell billowing over the ship's forecastle; and finally, (3) from three different angles capturing various stages of the ship performing an UNREP (Underway Replenishment, or the way the ship refuels and re-supplies while out at sea). In short, while these photographs reveal much to the casual observer, they reveal close to nothing to any current, or former, acronymic so-and-so; not even nostalgically attractive. Banal.
If you were to ever ask why the military, in general, is inclined to reveal so little, standard operating procedure calls for the canned reply: it's classified, and can potentially result in a security risk, which can in turn, risk the lives of our military men and women.
Security Alert! Security Alert! Away the Security Alert team! Away the Back-up Alert force! All hands not involved in Security Alert stand fast! Reason for Security Alert: (state reason)
*Addendum: Blank spaces in place of the name and nomenclature of the ship are of a thematic choice rather than one of caution or discretion. You only have to visit the website referenced in footnote number 2 in order to learn the ship's true identity--or at the very least, what's been painted on the side of its nose. I've taken back the liberty to acknowledge what I feel is worth acknowledging, by giving the vessel back what its due: redundancy. Actual sailors that served with me will be referenced--in this case out of kindliness, though some proved lame and generally put out when approached about the subject of the Deck Seaman's death-- by their rate (the acronym that designates their Navy job, and their rank). In regards to the Deck Seaman that did, in fact, take his own life while onboard the ship, he'll be referred to as Seaman K.
The smoking lamp is lit.
I spent three years on the U.S.S. ______ (CG-__) that, in a word, can be described as shit. It was as if they altered the daylight. What I'd like to remember before I was in was crowded away by what I labor to forget now, which makes re-remembering those moments while still in ambitious; even smells are digested more like sketches. For a time, I couldn't remember smells that weren't acrid: to smell of the outside was to smell of the sea, which made the smell itself, as well as the sea, irritating. I couldn't remember smells that weren't haze gray, or flat gray paint, or that non-skid black paint that covered the skin of the ship and passed its scent onto your own palms, and fingers, and underneath your fingernails, and in kind, inside your nostrils, and eyes, and lips, and mouth, and tongue, and in kind, down into your throat, and stomach, and innards, and entrails, and bowels.
I remember the polish we'd rub onto the bright work and how it came in an aluminum can that was also very bright. The acronymic so-and-so would tear a piece of what was either a roll of cotton, or some other type of fabric similar to cotton, already pre-saturated in the polishing compound and lightly brush the polish (preferably in a circular motion) across the face of the bright work until the acronymic so-and-so was able to see his or her reflection across the face of the bright work. I wonder now if Seaman K was ever able to see his own or was he taken by the residue left behind on his fingers, a kind of black that seemed to take days to scrub away in the sink; much like the ship itself?
Or maybe the potable water? While at sea, the engineers and medical staff were supposedly responsible for determining whether or not the quality of the water is hygienically safe and dependable. In most cases, the water tasted more like the bromide they used to purify it. And yes, ironically enough, the taste of bromide is very similar to the scent of bromide, which is very similar to the touch of bromide on your skin. In short, it tasted, and smelled, and felt like shit.
I spoke with the ship's Chaplain once (I'll simply refer to him as Chaplain) while we were in our homeport. It was during the San Diego wildfires in October of 2003. I awoke one morning to stand the Quarterdeck watch (2:00 a.m.-7:00 a.m.) to discover the night looking as if it were bent over at the waist; sputtering ash all over the city as well as the naval base. I'd never seen a more ill-tempered shade of redness. A few days before, I tried to have a sit down with Chaplain about some of the anxieties that were running their paws all over my skull. And you know what that sonofabitch had to say to me? His advice: Pray for rain. From the same man that during our evening prayers gave thanks to God for the haze gray, and flat gray, and non-skid black paint the deck seamen were ordered to spend days applying to the skin of the hull.
The smoking lamp is out
And when Seaman K approached him about the real (as opposed to mine which were more along the lines of grumbles rather than the bellows of Seaman K) anxieties that were running their paws over his skull, I, along with the rest of the crew, overheard that his advice to Seaman K bordered on the same: Pray for rain. And when Seaman K was approached by a CTO3 and a CTOSN that were both close and personal friends of mine (being that I was also a CTO3 at the time and worked elbow to elbow with these men) one evening, on the smoke deck by the ship's forecastle, just before he exited the smoke deck for the Aft Steering room (where, during an emergency, one can steer the ship if the Bridge or Pilot House is disabled), just before he chose to hang himself in that compartment, located at the very back of the ship, before a GMSN found him later on that evening, Seaman K's body in mid-air, blocking the entranceway into the compartment, just after CTO3 and CTOSN noticed that something wasn't quite right with Seaman K and asked him whether he and everything was okay, which he of course answered with a “no” because everything wasn't okay, that he had been disappointed for not being allowed to advance beyond a deck seaman into an organized rate (which prevents you from making rank), because the DC1 and GM1 that were onboard refused him the luxury, and because his family was in crisis and his chain-of-command refused him the luxury of taking leave in order to tend to his family, before CTO3 and CTOSN implored (begged, in fact) him to speak with our Divisional Officer, in hopes that he could sidestep the usual, bullshit standard and give him hope. Unfortunately, what we learned afterward was that Seaman K was also refused the luxury of patience, and thus proceeded to the Aft Steering compartment where he'd decided to hang himself using some of the ship's own rope. And it wasn't until CTO3 and CTOSN returned to the ship that next morning, while his body was being removed from the ship, that they learned how helpless they were with their concern and advice.
Dinner for the crew
And what had I learned? I learned that there were no miracles on Navy ships because one needs a God in order to have miracles. Unfortunately for all of us, all that we were given was a simple Chaplain. And the last I remember of the incident is standing inside a compartment titled Classroom, designed for larger meetings, discussion, occasional movie watching and, in some rare cases, actual class. However, this morning being the following morning, after Seaman K's body was removed from the ship. And after the Captain announced to us over the 1MC that Seaman K was found dead (nothing in regards to details, of course, because acronymic so-and-so's aren't entitled to the luxury of details), a number of us stood in a circle, hand in hand, in our coveralls--the very same coveralls in which my small bit of something paper was tucked away in one of my breast pockets, to carry around with me like some sort of strange alchemy--face down, with tears running down the sides of our noses and into our nostrils, listening to the Chaplain say a prayer about something that was beside the point.
And I can't even remember his prayer, or for that matter, his face.
And is it dehumanized or desensitized? Or, are they both another form of the very same? Or is it disremembering or misremembering? One, honestly, can't forget about the waves, and swells, and the rocking, nor the un-ending hum coming from the engine rooms. One can't, honestly, forget about the internal, collective ruckus of the ship: miscellaneous dishes and pots and utensils being banged together in the galley and mess hall, the air conditioning circulating throughout the spaces, the random hatches being opened and shut, the sound of military-issued, steel-toed boots over the epoxy floor. However, what you do manage to forget is the sound of silence, and the taste of fresh air, and the smell of a real breeze, and the ready handgrips of sunlight.
And since no one really knows the details of how, or what, or how come, or just because, here's what I imagine--since imagination is frowned upon when involving acronymic so-and-so's in uniform or former acronymic so-and-so's in uniform who cared less about whether or not their uniform, or overall look and outlook, looked squared away: Seaman K did it because he could and because he felt like it and because he decided that he could no longer just wade through the early bright of daylight; and that acronymic so-and-so's served no purpose except taking up space and time.
Therefore, there's something else that I've come to realize: There is no elbow room in hell.
Taps! Taps! Lights out. Maintain silence about the decks. Now, Taps!
1 United States Navy (February 2002). "Chapter 4 Communications" (PDF). Basic Military Requirements NAVEDTRA 14325. Naval Education and Training Professional Development And Technology Center. pp. 4-13 to 4-17. NAVSUP Logistics Tracking Number 0504-LP-101-1377. <http://compass.seacadets.org/pdf/nrtc/bmr/14325.pdf>. Retrieved 2006-12-16.
It doesn't very long to realize how disenchanted I was with my tenure in the military. Mostly because I'd always felt that the philosophies and ideologies that continue to serve as the backbone of our military branches were severely outdated. You add to that the unfortunate passing of a person (an actual human being with honest human needs, not some generic cog in an old and tired machine) who I felt was blatantly mistreated because of those aforementioned ideologies and philosophies, and you have an intriguing subject at your disposal. Mind you, my motivations were never to "get back" at those I felt were responsible for his death, in his name. I would never assume such a position. Instead, my aim was to address those philosophies and ideologies in an intelligent manner, given that intelligence and creativity are exactly the things that are lacking throughout the U.S. military.